Work Ethic Overrides Family Values


By staff reporter DANG XIAOFEI 

 Zhang Jie can barely spare ten minutes a day to cuddle his daughter.


AFTER caressing his sleeping baby daughter’s face, Zhang Jie sets out each Monday to Friday at 7 a.m. on the two-and-a-quarter hour commute from his home in Beijing’s western suburbs to his company in the eastern downtown area. He does not get home till 9 p.m., so hardly sees his four-month-old daughter other when she is asleep. He is so tired at the end of a working day that he barely has the energy even to converse with his wife. As he spends the bulk of his time at the office, home is little more than a place to eat and sleep. Zhang belongs to an emerging body of people in China whose job consumes the lion’s share of their existence, effectively depriving them of a family life. This expanding social group and the problems their punishing work schedules bring are fast becoming a main public concern.

No Time for Family Life

Zhang Jie, 30, is an HR training manager at a private enterprise. He earns what most Chinese would consider to be the handsome monthly salary of RMB 10,000, but it comes at a price. He and his wife spend a maximum 30 minutes in each other’s company each day after he gets home. “My wife devotes all her time to our child, but as the man of the house, work is the focal point of my life,” Zhang said.

“I can barely spare 10 minutes a day to cuddle my daughter,” he went on, explaining that he gets home well after the baby’s bedtime. The few minutes they spend together each day makes Zhang appear to her little more than a friendly stranger, and she becomes restive if he holds her for longer than a few minutes. There is little he can do to remedy this sorry situation.

Chinese home furnishing enterprise Red Star Macalline recently published the findings of a 2012 survey it conducted in 15 cities. It found that 74.4 percent of respondents spent less than an hour each day with their spouses, and that white-collar workers on average spent less than 65 minutes with their children, and had even less time for their parents. This involuntary estrangement from loved ones takes a heavy toll on family ties. The survey showed that 5,000 marriages daily end in divorce.

Yu Xiaohong, 35, is from Shenyang in Liaoning province. Career aspirations motivated her to live away from her home, husband and 19-month-old son in order to take up a post in Beijing. Her job as finance manager for a private company brings her a monthly salary of RMB 15,000. She telephones her husband every day, but finds that, as times goes by, “We have nothing much to say, so only talk for a few minutes.” She sorely misses her son and suffers agonies of guilt for leaving him. Yu takes the five-hour journey by express train to her hometown every two or three weeks to spend the weekend. She missed her husband at first, but has since grown accustomed to living alone.

Zhang Jie goes to see his parents, who live in another city, twice or three times a year on public holidays or on special occasions. Pressure of work prevents him from celebrating his parents’ birthday with them, and he sometimes forgets to call them.

Ministry of Civil Affairs statistics of 2012 show that more than 50 percent of households — a proportion that rises to 70 percent in cities — are so-called empty nests, meaning they are occupied solely by parents. Data also show that there are 40 million left-behind seniors in rural areas, accounting for 37 percent of total rural elderly residents.

Busy and Under Pressure

Working in HR demands the capacity to withstand high pressure. Much of Zhang’s work entails listening to company employees’ problems and complaints. Every firm has its particular strategies, and workers do not always grasp the explanations the HR department gives them. Zhang must hence play piggy-in-the-middle and try to keep smiling.

Yu Xiaohong works late once or twice a week, sometimes until midnight. On one occasion last May she worked through till six the following morning, and after a one-hour nap had to put in another full day.

Even when exhausted, Yu sometimes suffers from insomnia. “My work entails figures and analyses, so it’s sometimes difficult to wind down, and I often suffer from migraines,” Yu said.

Social activities with the boss and clients are another intrusion on time that would otherwise be spent with the family. But they are necessary to maintain favor and keep the salary rolling in.

The family thus comes bottom of the list of priorities of such high-flying executives. Unaware of the harm and hurt they inflict on those closest to them, they also unwittingly endanger their own future happiness.

When Zhang Jie gets home from a day’s hard work, he prefers to surf or play games online rather than talk to his wife. As training employees involves a lot of talking, home is where he feels he should be able to take a rest from it.

A recent China Youth Daily opinion poll via and that surveyed 2,750 people found that 83.1 percent of respondents prefer to be alone and silent after work, simply because it is a favorable contrast to the way they spend their working day.

Zhang Jie appreciates that his wife is occupied the whole day caring for their child and knows little of what is going on in the world, but nevertheless has no interest in talking with her about trivial topics such as what to eat for supper or what she did with her day. Nor does he want to talk about his work. He prefers to take time out from it at home rather than share his problems and grievances with his wife or parents. Moreover, he wants to present a strong image. Shutting them out, however, often makes him feel isolated.

Less Pressure, Better Life

The equilibrium index survey of Chinese employees in 2012 by the Institute of Social Science Survey of Peking University shows that Chinese people spend an average 8.66 hours at work each day, and that 30 percent spend more than 11 hours a day working. A joint survey in 2012 by Insight China magazine and Tsinghua University also showed that 69.4 percent of respondents work late to varying degrees.

Zhang Jie is now in the habit of drinking a glass or two of wine at least two or three times a week in efforts to dissipate feelings of isolation and depression. He does not drink to excess, but enjoys the feeling of relaxation it brings.

Chinese people have diverse ways of dealing with work and life pressure. The Horizon Research Group released a survey in August 2011 of more than 3,000 residents of 10 cities. Its findings were that 50.8 percent pursue social networking activities such as QQ, a popular instant messaging service, renren, called the Facebook of China, and microblogging to alleviate pressure. Another survey showed that 80 percent of respondents choose travel as a way of escaping from the cares of work. According to some media reports, some people keep pets to ward off the depression associated with work stress.

It is generally acknowledged that warm, caring marital relations are essential for the good physical and mental health of every family member. Although Chinese culture values industriousness and personal sacrifice in the interests of the general public, more people are reflecting on their modes of life and trying to achieve a balance between work and their family. Living in a transitioning society fraught with uncertainties and a growingly competitive labor market, people find it hard not to be preoccupied with their careers. But it is good to see that more now realize the importance of family life, and that they are making efforts to balance work against quality time with their spouses and children, rather than giving first priority to their jobs.